Great Men and Inventions: Providing Students Opportunities to Evaluate Bias and to Re-assess and Re-define Historical Terminology

This article is the seventeenth of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.

This eLearning activity allows students not only the ability to grapple with a significant part of the early Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom in the 18th century, but also to assess how to speak about historical actors in history. The thought-provoking material on Historiana, Industrial Inventions provides students with the opportunities to place the development of new inventions in their historical context, evaluate their relative importance, as well as to assess the ways in which historians place certain peoples’ contributions in the forefront instead as collaborative work that required the work of others. Too often it is assumed that we only need to assess the work of certain men (rarely women) and not the social context in which they lived. This activity asks students to use one example and consider both a particular man’s role and the social context in which he lived. As historians, we assess and evaluate; as most educators emphasize, it is important for students to learn these skills as they navigate the world around them.

The accompanying eLearning Activity which can be easily adapted to your class needs, gives students the opportunity to develop skills in evaluating historical evidence and bias to do the work of historians. In it, they are asked to analyze the relative importance of each of these inventions and/or the environment of which it was a part before they answer several questions.

In so doing students work on a variety of historical skills:
1) evaluating the work of the others
2) assessing bias
3) developing newer models of historical analysis that could be used in other situations.

This activity can be easily edited and adapted to suit your classroom context or even applied to a different historical period by building your own online task in Historiana’s eLearning Activity Builder. Indeed it makes sense to consider this work as homework and in class students share their opinions with a partner, Then they can share their opinions with the entire class to evaluate the merits of their ideas and work collaboratively to defend the name or names that they chose.

Such work allows students to think and work like historians, as is emphasized in the History Thinking Project.

Why are such themes important? Students are inundated with information about the past and the present in the guise of objectivity and yet when one looks more closely it is apparent that that is less the case and that frequent ways of thinking are influenced by bias which is often implicit – as is the case with accepting the actors behind these inventions – rather than bringing them to an explicit discussion – as this activity does. There is nothing wrong with determining that Watt’s contribution was so instrumental in developing the steam engine that it should in fact be named after him, but then that discussion could help in thinking through the role in naming other inventions after certain individuals, won’t it?


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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